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What to Do About Rude Adult Children?

A READER WRITES

DEAR CA & AC   

I feel I have failed as a mother because I seem to have ended up with rude adult children. They were brought up to be well-behaved, but now that they are in their 30’s and 40’s with children of their own, they greedily accept my help without a word of gratitude.
I adore their families and have provided various kinds of assistance over the last ten years. It has been a joy to me. But since I returned from a recent visit to Boston where I tended my three young grandsons, my daughter has not once picked up the phone or even tapped fingers on a keyboard to send me a note of thanks.
  
Have I been TOO available? Too giving? Is that possible?
  
I think asking a child (in her 40’s!) to thank her mother is a bit lame but fuming and, yes, crying won’t do either. Please help me!

SIGNED, PATHETIC PEGGY

  

DEAR PP  —   

Yours is a trying situation that most of us mothers face at one time or another. And certainly one that never goes away—from helping young children with their first written thank you notes to the conundrum you now face.
 
The first consideration is whether this is a long-term problem or just a recent oversight on your daughter’s part. If the first, then I think you should address it directly.  No need for embarrassment on YOUR part. You are right, of course, and just remember that is a part of parenting.
 
Next time you two speak, tell her matter-of-factly that she should have picked up the phone to thank you for your time in Boston; hopefully she’ll respond with chagrin and profuse apologies. If they don’t pour from her maw, then I think you should be a little less available for a while. Actions have consequences as we always tell our wee ones.

CONFIDENTLY, CA  

DEAR PP  — 

Once again, we have no-nonsense, straightforward advice from our Dear CA. In her world, the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow or a tap on the wrist is enough not only to correct a breach of etiquette, but also prompt contrition in a thoughtless daughter. Ah, shades of Downton Abbey.
 
The problem is that your daughters are no longer children, but grown women living in 21st century America. What does a mother say when her adult children are rude and forget their manners?  Simple. A wise mother says nothing.
 
A mother with adult children should no longer be in the business of providing personal-improvement/etiquette lessons—even on an occasional basis.  You have no doubt heard the saying It’s bad manners to point out someone else’s bad manners. It’s more than just bad manners to point out—or dwell on—an adult child’s failings. It’s bad parenting. More on that in a moment.
 
First, let’s focus on your feelings. You said that fuming and crying “won’t do.” True. The tone of your letter makes me suspect you have shed tears, however.  Would it help if I pointed out that what your daughter did—or failed to do—involves a formality, one that many well-bred and loving families neglect all the time?
 
Thank yous are always nice—and I agree that your daughter should have managed one in this case—but mothers (and grandmothers) do countless Sisyphusian tasks without a word of acknowledgement from anyone. Could it be that your daughter didn’t thank you for taking care of her children for the same reason you may not always thank her for taking care of your grandchildren? Caregiving is one of the things we women do. 
  
Instead of focusing on your daughter’s failures, it might be smarter to think about your own sensitivities. You said that it was a “joy” for you to have helped your family over the past ten years. Was there something about this trip—the “tending” of your young grandsons—that overtaxed your stamina and made you worry about the state of your health or your age? 
 
Or might the opposite concern be weighing on you? Is it possible you are worried that your daughter thinks you did too much and views you as intrusive or overstaying your welcome? I am not accusing, just asking.
 
Another possibility is that you may have had enough of this mothering and grandmothering business and want to do something else with your life but are afraid you could lose your family if you do. 
 
In any of these and countless other scenarios, your daughter’s failure to say thank you could become laden with meaning that she in no way intended. Should you call and ask her? I would not. 
 
Think instead of another oft-repeated saying You never stop being a parent. While it’s true that you never stop worrying about your children, worrying is not an irrevocable license to keep improving them. 

 ALWAYS, AC 

 P.S. And, no, you won’t lose your family if you decide to run off and do something else with your life. If it happens to be something really adventurous—exotic dancing, say—you’d be wise to do it far enough away from your daughters to save them any unnecessary embarrassment.
 

3 Comments on What to Do About Rude Adult Children?

  1. Marshall Goldberg // June, 2016 at 11:19 am //

    I of course lack the wisdom of both CA and AC — who doesn’t? — but I would like to venture an opinion nonetheless. PP should not judge her daughter as a peer. PP is, shall we posit, 30 years older than her child. When PP’s child was ten, did she expect her to make dinner for four? Or shop for holiday gifts for the extended family? PP’s daughter — shall we call her pp? — is no doubt overwhelmed by grandchildren, bills, insensitive bosses, cranky spouses and possibly even a losing sports team. Understand that she just lacks the capacity to have PP’s more experienced perspective. My advice to PP would be to take whatever kindnesses you get and not expect too much from pp. She’ll get there someday, just as 10 year-old pp did. PP may be using a walker by then, but pp will get there!

  2. Nancy Miller // June, 2014 at 10:12 pm //

    Loved the questions posed by both “mamas.” We “Nana’s” walk a fine line between love and perceived “duty.” Sometimes, the kindest thing to do for yourself and the family, is to just say no. Naturally, words do make a difference, and a thank you can open your heart. But in the course of a long term relationship, sometimes the gratitude gets buried in the day to day responsibilities of getting through the day for your daughter and family. Give yourself and your daughter a break and know you are loved and trusted.

  3. As someone new to parenting an adult (my son is 22 and starting his first adult job), I love having two answers to this conundrum. CA is so satisfying — YES, tell them to say thank you! Thank you makes the world go ’round. But then, AC weighs in with some wise observations. Many of my own parenting frustrations have had at least as much to do with me and my state of mind than with my son. So, what to do? Personally, I like the idea of exotic dancing — but perhaps a little closer to Boston than AC would advise.

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